Baking challenge: a signature raisin bread

Moving on with the next stage of my baking challenge, we came to bread week. In series one of the Great British Bake-Off, Edd was the star of bread week, and some of the other men mentioned they baked bread frequently and thought they’d have the edge. Bread and cake, Paul and Mary, yin and yang…baking bread as opposed to cakes is what is often seen as dividing the men from the women. I guess baking bread can be considered more masculine than fairy cakes, though I tend to see baking as gender neutral, because I have never known a man to turn down a cupcake.

Bread is where quite a number of Bake-Off competitors seem to stumble, at least in the first two series, when people signed up because they baked cakes quite a lot – but the Bake-Off really stretches one’s range. Anyway, bread baking is something I do quite a lot of – I would probably stumble on macaron week rather than bread. Which is not to say it never goes wrong (how well I remember that loaf which was completely liquid once its crusty and appealing crust was cracked in to). Still, I have nurtured sourdough starters, until I realised the demands of making a loaf every week or so exceeded the demands of a two-person household, and I have baked using fresh and dried yeast. Now that I have located a source of fresh yeast in London (I buy little packets of it from Scandi Kitchen, along with my pearl sugar), I do feel that breads made with fresh yeast are more delicious than those made with dried, which often taste quite yeasty to me, as if too much has been used. The texture is also better, to my taste. It’s undeniable that dried yeast is more convenient and readily-available, however, and the end product is certainly better than shop-bought even when using dried yeast.

Raisin bread
Raisin bread

For the signature loaf challenge, I made a raisin bread based on a Linda Collister recipe that I used to bake quite a lot when I was in my teens and had trouble sleeping. I would slip downstairs and spend a few hours making bread, reading between risings, put the bread out on the table and go to bed at the crack of dawn. No wonder my sleeping patterns were a bit screwy. I recently started making Linda Collister’s raisin and nut bread again, but hers is very much a slightly sweet, fruit-and-nut studded savoury loaf, hearty with wholemeal flour, and I wanted a proper soft raisin breakfast bread, not entirely giving up on the healthy wholewheat aspect but not emphasising it so much. So I swapped around quantities, doubled the raisins, added some melted butter, and used brown rice syrup instead of honey.

The recipe below made two loaves – perfect for me as I could bring along a loaf to a friend’s for brunch.

Raisin bread
Adapted from Linda Collister’s walnut and raisin bread from her The Baking Book

  • 450g strong white bread flour
  • 230g wholemeal bread flour
  • 7g salt
  • 15g fresh yeast (or 7g dried yeast)
  • 340ml cold water
  • 30g butter, melted
  • 2 TBS brown rice syrup
  • 350g raisins
  1. Mix the flours and salt together in a mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Crumble the fresh yeast into a small bowl and cream to a smooth liquid with half of the water and all of the brown rice syrup. Pour the yeast liquid into the well in the flour and draw in some of the flour from around the well, just enough to make a thick batter. Leave for 15 minutes to sponge. When you come back, it will be bubbly, but only slightly – don’t expect masses of froth, just a little bubbly activity.
  2. Add the remaining water and the melted butter to the flour mixture, and work in the rest of the flour to make a soft, but not sticky, dough. You may have to add a little extra flour if the dough is sticking to your fingers or a tablespoon or so of extra water is the dough is crumbly and won’t come together.
  3. Tip the dough out onto a very lightly floured working surface and knead for 6-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Pat out the dough and sprinkle part of the raisins over the surface. Knead them in, pat out the dough again and repeat. Repeat with a handful of raisins or so at a time until all are kneaded throughout the dough evenly. This is quite tough work!
  4. Shape the dough into a ball. Clean out the mixing bowl, wipe a little vegetable oil over the surface of the bowl and return the ball of dough to it. Turn the dough upside-down so all surfaces are ever-so-slightly coated with the oil. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave at room temperature to rise until doubled in bulk – about two hours.
  5. Knock back the dough with your knuckles. Turn the dough out onto a very slightly floured work surface and knead quickly for a minute – this will redistribute air bubbles and pockets evenly. Grease two baking sheets, or one large one – I use the big black sheet that comes with the oven so only one is needed, which is just as well as they bake more evenly at the same height in the oven. Divide the dough in half and form into two neat balls. I do this by pulling the edges of the dough into the centre and pinching them together, then smoothing the bottom out. Leave at room temperature until doubled, 1.5 – 2 hours.
  6. Preheat the oven to 220C once you’re almost ready to bake the loaves. Uncover the dough and slash each loaf a few times with a very sharp knife. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 190C and bake 20-25 minutes more. Test the loaves by tapping underneath – they’re ready if they sound hollow, if not, leave them in for 5 more minutes. Once ready, move to a wire rack to cool completely.
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